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Forge & Carve free chapter - knife making

Ben works with his wife Lois in a stylish converted barn in the Herefordshire hills, together they create bushcraft tools including knives and axes, with Ben crafting the tools and Lois creating the leather sheaths to place them in. With training in green woodwork, woodland management, and blacksmithing, Ben’s experience is eclectic and extensive, which brings an impressive level of understanding of the materials and tools he works with, matched only by his skill and passion for his craft.

Ben's website

Introduction

Knives are the most basic yet essential tool for many heritage crafts; used for whittling, carving, cutting, and removing bark from green wood for a variety of items. They are also a symbol for survival; for thousands of years knives in some form have been used in the making of shelter and the gathering and preparation of food. In terms of craftsmanship, knives exquisitely combine contrasting materials – such as wood and metal – requiring very different skills to master.

Origins

Brought up on a farm, as a child I could regularly be found playing in the woods and going on camping holidays. This meant I always had knives on my person although I could never afford a good one. My father worked on vintage cars, which gave me access to a workshop, and at sixteen I made my first knife – a Bowie knife – out of an old file to take camping with me. It was too big and cumbersome to be very practical, but it was a great start to my knife-making journey.

My interest in hands-on activites continued, and I initially learned green woodworking, making objects like spoons, chairs, and tables. Tool-making came about through wanting a knife optimized for certain tasks, such as spoon carving. In this way making knives and green woodworking are symbiotic for me. I’m able to make better knives because I know what they will be used for. Tool-making also allowed me to use beautiful off-cuts from chairs that were just the right size for a knife handle, ensuring minimum amounts of material go to waste.

Motivation

One of the main things I love about knife making is that it involves working with a range of materials that put to use a whole host of skills. You’re working with wood, steel, leather – sometimes even antler. The mix of organic elements blended together in harmony is stunning. There is also still the child alchemist inside me that adores plunging cherry-red metal into oil and seeing golden sparks fly off the metal as you grind it. I am fascinated with the science behind the processes of heating and cooling metal.

The connection back to our ancestors is another fantastic element that is common among all heritage crafts. A knife is the most fundamental tool to a human – from the very first blade made from a shard of flint to the latest modern steel ; without a cutting tool no craft is possible. The idea of gathering resources, being outdoors, and making something useful to help us survive is a primeval urge that is incredible to return to. I was fortunate in that I had a holistic apprenticeship that combined green woodworking with coppicing, which allowed me to experience both the collecting and crafting of wood. Lois and I used money from our wedding to plant trees on our land, and these are now old enough to harvest wood that is perfect for carving spoons from.

What we create is in us, and is something that I would not be myself without

For me, however, the buzz of creativity – taking something organic and putting your influence on it – is what really stands out about heritage crafts. The materials tell you what they want you to do with them rather than the opposite; every piece of wood is different and I have to decide how best to carve it to make the knife handle I want. What we create is in us, and is something that I would not be myself without. I find myself becoming jittery if I haven’t made something in a while; I constantly need that adrenaline rush of creativity.

It is this creativity that drives me – and I believe any maker – to carry on. There is a five-minute window when you have finished something and you can enjoy what you have made. After that you start seeing areas you could have done differently and decide that the next knife you make will be perfect. Of course it isn’t in my eyes, but it is this ongoing search for improvement that drives us. Practice and repetition is how you master a craft and a material.

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Workspace and tools

The environment we work in definitely has an impact on our productivity. An incredible view of the Herefordshire countryside and interesting decor means we are never short of inspiration. I don’t think we could create what we create if we were on an industrial estate.

I use a lot of modern machinery such as electric drills and bandsaws, which some could argue take away from the essence of heritage crafts. However it still comes down to working with raw materials and making every piece individually. We have to adapt and if there is a tool that will allow me to do something better and quicker, I will use it. Saving time on these areas allows me to spend more time on the areas where original craftsmanship really shines.

I have numerous drills which allow me to drill different-sized holes quickly without having to change the drill bit each time. I also have an anvil, a mark of the blacksmithing parts of my job. The middle-left image on the next page shows the tool I use to add our logo to each knife – seven tonnes of pressure are exerted to make this possible. The top-right image shows a Rockwell hardness tester, which I use to check the hardness of metal at various stages. Choosing the wood for a knife is one of the hardest things I have to  do as there are so many beautiful options offering different potential; I keep a range of offcuts – including ash, elm, maple, birch, English walnut, and Arizona desert ironwood – in a heated cupboard where they can dry out properly.

Process overview

01 I use a stock removal process for creating the basic knife shape from the steel. This involves taking a ruler width of steel, scribing the design using a carbide scribe, and then roughly removing all the bits that don’t look like a knife using a bandsaw.

02 I use a coarse-grit grinder with a P36 grit belt to remove extra steel down to the outline I scribed. This is when the sparks begin to fly! I drill holes through the steel which I will use to clamp the blade and handle together later. These holes will also affect the weight and balance of the knife.

03 Next I scribe out the bevels using measuring tools and roughly grind them, leaving the edge thick. The blade isn’t functional at this point; the steel is still quite malleable as it is annealed. This means I can do all the work I need to do at this stage, such as drill the holes and stamp our logo.

04 Once I’ve added our logo to the blade, I take the soft steel and run it through a series of controlled heats to make it very hard, and then stress relieve it to turn it from glass-hard to soft enough to sharpen it to a usable tool. This involves using an electric kiln, plunging the metal into vegetable oil to cool it, and then baking at a much lower temperature for a much longer length of time. I then grind the bevels to refine them so the knife is sharp.

05 The wood needs to be very dry in order to stay flat and be a good fit to the tang. I want the grain to line up with the direction of the blade, so with the wood split into two pieces I position one piece according to the grain and clamp the blade on top. I can then transpose the holes from the blade to the handle material, which will be fixed in place using trial pins.

06 I angle the front edges of the handle by thirty degrees as it will not be possible to do this once it is attached to the blade. I roughly saw off any excess wood using a bandsaw, and then use two-part epoxy, screws, and bolts to attach the two handle slabs onto the knife blade.

07 Once the epoxy has dried, the whole knife can be taken to the grinder to remove excess material, rounding and sculpting the handle to the right shape. I then begin to sand it by hand working my way down various grits.

08 I dip the wood in linseed oil to help bring out the colour and grain, soaking it overnight. After leaving it to dry for a few days, I give it a final buff and apply wax to seal the wood.

09 I peel the tape off the blade that I had used to protect it while working on the handle, and give it one more sharpen. I want the knife to be as high a quality as possible for the customer so I can spend a long time perfecting it at the end.

Forging a career

I never consciously made the decision to turn tool-making into a full-time job; it evolved naturally. I knew after leaving school I needed to do something practical. I found my way onto a three-year green woodwork apprenticeship and went self-employed once this was completed, mainly making furniture and providing training courses myself. During this time, people would attend a chair-making course for the first time, for example, and wouldn’t have a knife, so I gave them mine; they liked it, asked where it came from, and wanted to buy one. I saw a gap in the market and moved from making chairs to making tools. It’s easier to work with something small as it can easily be posted anywhere around the world.

If what you produce is high quality and you make yourself and your brand known, you can get to where you want to be

Our business also grew organically, with us starting out by going to shows and trying to sell our tools there. UK shows such as The Bushcraft Show and Wilderness Gathering were key in getting our products and name out there. It’s important to persevere – if you have a roof over your head and are able to survive, keep following your heart. Don’t think about earning a living; think about doing something that stimulates you. You don’t need extra money to go to the cinema when you’re doing something that you really enjoy. If what you produce is high quality and you make yourself and your brand known, you can get to where you want to be.

I love making the elaborate, expensive products but our mainstay is the small carving tools that people need regularly. It is important to understand what the market wants and work with that. Often we find that someone will buy a small cheaper tool to start with, see and appreciate the brand, and save up for a more expensive one. Our brand is integral to who we are.

Obviously you need to be driven if you are going to be self-employed. Motivation is never a problem for me – it’s almost the opposite; I can’t normally turn the creative part of my brain off so it can be difficult to have a break. Knife ideas and designs often come to me in the middle of the night and I initially have to jot them down on a napkin or whatever I have to hand. Going for a walk can be a good reset. I find myself still crafting in the evening but working on personal items instead, trying new techniques I would like to explore.

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Surviving in the modern world

Technological advancements and increased accessibility offer many benefits to traditional craftspeople. The growth of social media and being able to easily ship worldwide has seen our sales soar. It was a family member who encouraged us to make the most of Instagram and YouTube, and this was definitely the right advice. The increase in demand means we can now bulk order material, which makes it more economical (obviously where we can make something from our own wood we do). Everything used to be cut out by hand with a bandsaw. Now I am able to use a digital drawing that is water-jet cut. The cost is about the same when you balance it with the amount of time it would have taken manually. This allows me to focus on the stimulating and fun parts and areas that make the product feel handmade, such as the handle.

Now we have worldwide orders there are no longer such pronounced seasonal spikes, which means we have a constant stream that is easier to manage and live from. The internet makes things much easier because you can search for good suppliers online, and you can also learn new skills from other people on YouTube, for example. Rather than compete with large online marketplaces, we are able to distinguish ourselves from them in terms of packaging and personalization, which people seem to favour. We try to provide a personal service where we can.

Success does also bring challenges. The more popular you are the more emails and phone calls you receive, which takes away from the time you can spend making; sometimes you can’t physically stop what you are doing to answer the phone, which is why I now have Bluetooth headphones that allow me to answer the phone while quenching hot steel.

It is important to point out that most craftspeople don’t have a pension plan, and I know that in ten years’ time my elbows and hands won’t be the same. It’s good to keep this in mind and prepare to look at alternatives, whether this is finding more ways you can acquire mechanical help with parts of the process or whether you could take on an apprentice.

Conserving the craft and it's livelihood

I’m passionate about making things, which means I’m passionate about talking about them. I want to share what I know with other people and spread the enjoyment and satisfaction I get from it. Some people believe that by passing on our knowledge we are encouraging people to simply make their own tools, especially at a time when being resourceful and self-sufficient is extremely popular. While this is true to an extent, I don’t think this is as damaging as some think it is: I make knives, but I also like to buy knives. I can appreciate other people’s work because I know what went into it. I enjoy looking at, critiquing, and learning from what someone else has created. There are always people who go hunting, fishing, and enjoy green woodworking, and will therefore need a tool.

Through demonstrations at shows and online platforms such as YouTube, we are educating people on how to make our product. I get a huge amount of satisfaction from inspiring others. The great thing about crafts is that they appeal to such a wide audience – we have toddlers and great grandfathers alike watching our process at shows. We love helping other people find the same kind of happiness and enjoyment we have. For example, teaching a child who is not doing well at school how to make things and see them find their niche in life is incredible. I am still learning every day and I am happy to continue passing on this learning to other people and keep the craft alive.

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